For a while now I’ve noticed that something exciting is going on in Toronto. There is an energy to the place that is new and different. Social innovators abound, interesting conferences and speeches seem to occur daily, and big ideas are taking shape. Others are noticing it to (via Richard Florida).
I know that the story of this transformation is complex, but from someone whose both been a participant and observer of the transition I feel one piece of the puzzle is perhaps easily explained. More interestingly it isn’t making a lot of peoples lists, but the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) strikes me as a central piece of Toronto’s emergence as a place with buzz.
This idea has been solidified by my reading of Steven Johnson’s Emergence (a fantastic book BTW, but then everything he writes is excellent).
Indeed, Johnson’s opening parable about the story of slime mold provides a perfect metaphor for what has happened:
“Slime mold spends much of its life as thousands of distinct single-celled units, each moving separately from the its other comrades. Under the right conditions, those myriad cells will coalesce again into a single, larger organism…”
As Stevens explains, for a long time it was not understood what caused the slime mold to shift from single-celled into a larger organism. For a long time it was presumed that certain “leader” or “pacemaker” cells caused other cells to react. Finally, two scientists, Keller and Segel asked “What if the community of slime mold cells were organizing themselves? What if there were no pacemakers?… If the slime cells pumped out enough cyclic AMP (a signaling chemical), clusters of cells would start to form. Cells would begin following trails created by other cells, creating a positive feedback loop that encouraged more cells to join the cluster.” Critically, no single overarching cell was telling everyone else what to do. Instead each cell was evaluating the nutrients available in its immediate environment and adjusting its AMP output accordingly. The result is a bottoms-up system.
Now, while some may relish in referring to Torontonians as slime mold, they should instead wish for a similar fate. I think Toronto has experienced a phase transition like that of slime mold. Like the individual cells of slime mold, a critical mass of social innovators are finally connecting. And rather than secrete a chemical, they are sharing ideas, challenges, and opportunities. These conversations have created a positive feedback loop, attracting still more social innovators, along with philanthropists, venture capitalists and consultants, helping further foster the community that has started to thrive in Toronto. A decentralized, emergent community of social innovation is growing.
CSI has played a critical role in all this by serving as a critical aggregator, by simply providing a place and some basic support, it fostered an environment in which emergent behaviour became possible. Before SCI social innovators probably abounded across Toronto, but were isolated and alone. Today they are busy created webs of complex communities and sub-communities. Toronto has had this aggregation in the finance indsutry for some time, but for social innovators and other creative class entrepreneurs, this community of support is new. As one observer who worked on Canada25 noted to me, even 5 years ago the peer support and interest was not even a fraction of what it is today.
There are lessons here. For Toronto, but also for other cities across Canada. Obviously other factors matter. This isn’t an attempt to be completely reductionist. Toronto’s decent subway system, which allows people (cell!) to easily come together from across a large geography, makes it easier to achieve critical mass. This means similar success in cities like Calgary may be more challenging. For my home town of Vancouver, the jury is still out – transit is getting better, but what about critical mass?. But I continue to have high hopes. Perhaps the Tides Renewal Centre will come to serve a similar function as SCI in Toronto.
Regardless of where you live, Canadians everywhere should take notice. There is a buzz in Toronto, the question is, can we bottle the lightening and reproduce it elsewhere? I’d love to hear of similar projects if anyone knows of any.